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NBA Shootaround: The Class of ’15 Is a Gift That Keeps on Giving

Towns and Porzingis battle for sophomore supremacy, Westbrook meets an old friend, and Hassan Whiteside has another huge night

(AP Images)
(AP Images)

Welcome to the NBA Shootaround, the Ringer staff’s weekly run through the league, told in riffs and GIFs.

A Fantasy Land of Kaiju and Unicorns

Jason Concepcion: The Class of 2015 has freaking bars. Knicks-Timberwolves was, on a very superficial level, a meeting of NBA teams. On another, much deeper level — a level where I want to live, around the clock, never coming up for air — it was a meeting of mythical creatures, beasting over the land.

Let’s begin at the end, because that’s the least important part — the Knicks won 106–104. Carmelo Anthony #StayedMelo, drilling the game winner from the right wing, 18 feet out, over Andrew Wiggins. Then, with seconds on the clock, Anthony tipped Zach LaVine’s inbounds pass, and sutured up the win. New York’s Lithuanian rookie Mindaugas Kuzminskas hit 4-of-5 from 3, and set his career high with 14 delightfully ballsy points off the bench. Wiggins and LaVine combined for 36 points, though neither shot particularly well. Brandon Jennings tapped into a well of bad blood and did this to Ricky Rubio:

What this game was about, though, was Towns and Porzingis, and what they represent for their respective team’s futures.

Luxuriate in these numbers:

Karl-Anthony Towns: 47 points (15-of-22), 18 rebounds, and three blocks in 42 minutes.

Kristaps Porzingis: 29 points (11-of-20), eight rebounds, four assists, and two blocks in 39 minutes.

They barely guarded each other, mind you. Towns, as the numbers show, had the more impressive game. He deep fried every Knicks big that deigned to stop him — poor Willy Hernangomez, Kyle O’Quinn, whichever Plumlee that is, and even Melo a little bit. Porzingis had the more omnivorous outing, doing his damage from deep and from the post, and dutifully moving the ball.

But, when they did check each other, it was up there with Godzilla versus Mechagodzilla and Gipsy Danger versus Otachi. They met at the rim twice, and time actually seemed to slow. I can’t wait to soak in this for the next decade.

Old Friends, Older Tricks

Katie Baker: Russell Westbrook can often be seen scowling on the basketball court, particularly when he’s just done something great. “I do play mad,” he said in an ESPN the Magazine interview in 2013. “On the court, there’s no friends for me. My dad always taught me, ‘When the game starts, the basketball is your only friend.’ I mean, I know a lot of guys. But maybe I’ll talk to you afterwards.” But with new Wizards coach Scott Brooks making his first visit to Oklahoma City since he was fired by the Thunder in spring 2015 after seven seasons, it was Westbrook who warmly sought out his “guy” before the game.

Westbrook’s performance in the former player-coach reunion got off to a dreadful start (he shot 4-of-15 from the field and turned the ball over four times in the first half), but his demonstrative dunk with only a second remaining in the second quarter wiped everyone’s memory slate clean. But this was a game with two of the most athletic players in the world competing against each other; John Wall is Brooks’s new hyper-athletic point guard, and he put his gifts on display in the third quarter:

With about five minutes left in the game, Westbrook was shooting a miserable 21.7 percent from the field. The Thunder, once up 16, were now down seven. But as the minutes ticked down, Westbrook lit up. He pursued his own missed shots, dished out assists, swatted at Washington players, and, with two minutes left in regulation, earned his fourth triple-double in as many games; he’s up to nine on the season, overall. “The guy is just unstoppable,” one of the Wizards announcers assessed.

With 17.6 seconds on the clock and the Thunder down three, Oklahoma City inbounded the ball. Westbrook took it, glanced around, dribbled, and then all but shrugged before he slipped behind the 3-point line and coolly hit a game-tying shot. On Washington’s ensuing possession, Wall drove toward the basket and opted to pass at the last instant. The play fizzled out. The Thunder cruised in overtime, winning 126–115.

“He’s a winning basketball player,” Brooks said about Westbrook after the game. “It’s not just predicated on him making shots.” Westbrook said that his mentality is to “never stop, man … to keep staying in attack mode.” By this point, Westbrook was smiling.

The Bulls and Lakers, in a Funhouse Mirror

Ben Detrick: Any meeting between the Lakers and Bulls conjures knee-jerk nostalgia, not only for Magic and Michael, but even for recent departees like Kobe and two-fifths of the Knicks’ new starting lineup. Still, the latest incarnations of these two marquee franchises are intriguing, both stylistically and due to the precarious nature of their unexpected early-season success.

The Lakers came into the night at 9–10 despite a defensive rating that had tumbled to 28th, nearly mirroring last season’s spongy, league-worst rank. The Bulls, on the other hand, were 10–6 and haughtily perched in the NBA’s top 10 in both offensive and defensive rating — while gulleting a cupcake schedule and benefiting from a laser-guided hot streak from behind the arc that recently slumped to T-shirt cannon accuracy. These teams are flawed, but we just don’t know how badly.

Wednesday’s game, a 96–90 upset by the Lakers, was ghastly but an enjoyable exercise in chaos theory. Both teams went full choker-and-Coogi sweater ’90s, combining for six made 3-pointers, 70 free throw attempts, and 37 turnovers. The Bulls ran out to an early lead thanks to the fast-twitch perimeter defense of Jimmy Butler, Dwyane Wade, and Rajon Rondo, but were eventually doomed by bricking all but 35 percent of their field goal attempts.

For the Lakers, this was another impressive win. It came on the road against a quality opponent and without D’Angelo Russell or Nick Young (which explains why Los Angeles attempted a Byron Scott–approved eight 3s). The man most emblematic of the team’s triumph-by-addled-determination was Julius Randle, who went 4-of-13 from the floor, turned the rock over five times, and ferociously yanked down 20 rebounds, including nine on the offensive glass.

After Butler airballed a potential game-tying 3-pointer with 16 seconds left, it was only fitting that Randle sealed the win at the free throw line. Naturally, he boinked the first foul shot, just to make it suitably messy.

The Blind Leading the Blind

Haley O’Shaughnessy: The great thing about streaming games online is that they never go to commercial. (The bad: near-definite server crashes.) You see the same things that the audience does. At the Moda Center during last night’s Pacers-Blazers game, one of the crowd games during the breaks in the action involved a blindfolded fan wandering from one end of the court to the other, where five posters with appliances were being held. The crowd was supposed to cheer as she walked, guiding her to what she wanted (a refrigerator, smart) and to boo when she strayed to the dishwasher and oven.

For how fun and focused the Trail Blazers offense can be, the team’s awareness on the other end of the floor this season has rivaled that of their blindfolded fans. Portland entered the game with the NBA’s worst defensive rating, at 110.5 points per 100 possessions, nearly two points worse than the closest competition. The past week, Terry Stotts’s practices emphasized going “back to the basics” with the team’s defensive fundamentals. According to the announcers, team meetings were called in an effort to get each other to step up.

The Blazers were up against a Pacers team missing Paul George; they didn’t necessarily need defense to win this game, and they played like they understood that. For every perfect alley-oop to Mason Plumlee on one end, there was a missed rotation on the other. Damian Lillard finished with 28 points and 10 assists, but his shoddy attention on defense allowed his counterpart in Jeff Teague to put up one of his most efficient performances of the season. Still, when the offense is as swoon-worthy as Portland’s can be, defense is sometimes beside the point.

The Blazers won in a 131–109 blowout, and the lady won her fridge, too. And if the “back to the basics” defense ever clicks, both should still be operational come mid-April.

Kings Beat Sixers 0–0

Riley McAtee: Less than a week after I watched the Cards Against Humanity crew dig a freaking hole in the ground for Black Friday, I watched a bunch of dudes push mops along the court at the Wells Fargo Center. The arena had fallen victim to some weird condensation problem because of the ice underneath the hardwood. I watched a reporter wipe the wet floor with his palm for science. I tuned in to the broadcast for, like, 25 full minutes for a game that would eventually be postponed. And it wasn’t that bad!

DeMarcus Cousins tried as hard as he could to get the floor to where it needed to be, but it just wasn’t his night. He didn’t get a chance to blow up Joel Embiid, whose minutes restriction was reportedly being raised before the game. At first I was upset for Boogie, but he seemed so happy mopping the floor instead of playing actual basketball. Then I was upset for the Kings, because they really needed a win as they try to climb back into the playoff race, but we got some sick burns, so that’s kind of a half-win. We don’t know when the game will be rescheduled to yet. Maybe by then Embiid will be off his minutes limit entirely and we’ll really get to see the league’s two most entertaining big men do battle.

The Perks of Being a Wall Tower

Danny Chau: There was only one unquestionable star in last night’s Heat-Nuggets game, and it was Hassan Whiteside, which says a lot about the quality of the matchup. In Miami’s 106–98 win over Denver, Whiteside had his second consecutive game of 25 points and at least 16 rebounds — truly impressive numbers for a player whose star power still feels unvarnished.

Just watch him attempt a hook shot. One of the sport’s most iconic offensive maneuvers, a true barometer of a big man’s grace and fluidity, Whiteside’s version is either an affront to the form or a concession to his otherworldly physique. Whiteside often decides he’s going to shoot a hook long before he reads the defense and a few beats before his body is ready to process all the steps. It means the spin and lift happen too early, and any actual aiming or adjustment of the shot happens way after the fact. Imagine Blake Griffin’s hitched jumper, but in hook-shot form. It works, because he is a giant with a 7-foot-7 wingspan — more than enough for his continuously unfurling limbs to make up for any errors he might have made earlier in the process.

For a player whose impact is seen almost exclusively through his physical presence, it probably doesn’t come as a surprise that his best play of the game, and the play that would win the game for the Heat, was a block on a futile layup attempt by Jamal Murray with under a minute remaining in the game. Murray was called for ticky-tack fouls the entire way through the game, and the Nuggets announcers noted that he was simply getting the rookie experience from officials last night. But when he was truly humbled by Whiteside’s condor reach, the announcers could only express the obvious: a driving layup down the center of the lane works wonders against an SEC team like Vanderbilt, but not against a truly elite rim protector.

The play encapsulated what essentially explains the result: Miami knows who its star is; the Nuggets, on the other hand, brought in Murray, their rookie, with just over two minutes left in the game and force-fed him the ball for five field goal attempts. He brought them close, but he’s not quite at NBA speed yet. He’s still figuring out his ability in the context of the league; in many ways, so is Whiteside. But one has the advantage of a titanesque frame and the other doesn’t.